In my opening post, I will explore the concepts of learning, understanding, and the difference between experts and novices by examining one of the fundamental challenges of professional baseball: how to hit a curveball. (Important point: this post is not intended to be a how-to manual. It’s more of an extended metaphor to illustrate how learning occurs in the brain.)
A curveball is quite literally a twist on a fastball, so let’s start there. How do you learn to hit a fastball thrown at 90mph?
My working definition of learning is anything committed to memory that can be recalled into thought or action. Learning could be factual, such as knowing that a fastball thrown at 90mph will arrive at you, the batter, standing 60 feet away in approximately 0.4 seconds. Or learning could be kinesthetic, such as recalling the order to use the different muscles of your body to produce a fluid and controlled swing (it’s legs, hips, arms, and lastly wrists).
That’s some of the information you need to hit a fastball. How do you learn to hit a curveball?
Curveballs are thrown at a slower speed, usually around 75mph, and take around 0.6 seconds to reach the batter. They can also move up to two feet through the air vertically and sometimes horizontally due to the additional force on the ball created by their spin. The end result is that a curveball starts out aimed at your head and at the last second drops right in front of you. Swing where it is and you’ll miss. It’s a counterintuitive pitch, which is why the word “curveball” refers to anything that behaves in an unexpected way.
This youtube clip illustrates the two types of pitches excellently, a fastball followed by a curveball. (Look at the way the batter reacts to the curveball!)
To hit a curveball, you need to recognize that it’s coming before it drops. How can you learn to tell the difference between a curveball and a fastball?
You need to have an understanding of the different types of pitches. Understanding is learning that is contextualized and linked to the concepts underlying the knowledge. If you truly understand a concept or discipline, you know what details are more meaningful than others. You are an expert and you can pick out the salient details right away. To differentiate a curveball from a fastball, the expert knows that to create enough spin on the ball a pitcher has to position his fingers on the side of the ball and as he throws the ball will rapidly rotate his hand and arm, sort of like twisting a doorknob. The expert also knows that the spin of a curveball will produce a subtle visual pattern on the ball. While these may be tiny details in the big picture, they are the crucial ones that a novice will miss. The expert has already identified the curveball the moment after it is released from the pitcher’s hand. The expert has gone beyond learning to understanding.
So why am I not playing for the Cincinnati Reds, my favorite baseball team growing up? (Don’t forget that this is a metaphor to examine learning. We’re leaving aside the rather significant fact that hitting a baseball at the professional level is a difficult task for the best athletes in the world.)
When I was younger I lacked a key belief about expertise. At 14 years old, I hadn’t failed at anything. I was always the smartest kid in school, and in sports I was one of the better athletes. Like many novices, I believed that intelligence and mastery were innate traits. So when I tried out for the JV baseball team, couldn’t hit a curveball, and was cut, I believed that I just wasn’t good enough. I gave up organized baseball. But if I had the belief of an expert, who recognizes that developing new skills and understandings can be challenging at first, I might have persisted with the curveball and made the team the next year.
I like to think that by now I have developed the ability to learn new skills. My wife has watched me go from burning frozen pizzas into being halfway competent in the kitchen and baking some amazing cookies. But I still have a difficult time with failure. I hate dancing because it’s not something that I’ve ever been good at. I hate those first steps of failure, that feeling of being a fish out of water, and I’m pretty sure that I still do whatever I can to avoid it.
Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368
Somner, L. (2013, May 8). How Can Anyone Hit a 90mph Fastball? Science Explains! News Fix KQED’s Bay Area News Blog. Retrieved October 27, 2013, from http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2013/05/08/96462/
Shapiro, A., Lu, Z.L., Knight, E., & Ennis, R. (2009). Feature Blur and the Break of the Curveball. Retrieved from http://www.shapirolab.net/IC2009/Shapiro_IC2009_Feature_Blur_and_the_break_of_the_Curveball.pdf
Junior Baseball. (2008). How to Hit the Curve Ball. Junior Baseball. Retrieved October 27, 2013, from http://www.juniorbaseball.com/coachesparents/coaches-corner/single-news-article/article/how-to-hit-the-curve-ball.html
Chosenministry. (2008, June 07). Wicked Curve Ball in Puerto Rico. YouTube. Retrieved October 27, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I28o24u3UUk